I mentioned having just seen this to a co-worker last week, and we both discussed how it measured up against the 1999 remake and the weird copycat miniseries Stephen King did; I’d seen both of those already, but I think I liked this best.
Based on a novel by Shirley Jackson, this is the story of a group of paranormal researchers investigating a supposedly haunted house. Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), a university professor, is leading the search; but the film more closely follows Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), an emotionally fragile woman who supposedly had experienced some poltergeist activity when she was a child. Eleanor is now grown, and has spent the past ten years caring for an emotionally abusive mother in frail health. Mother has since died, though, and her sister is now urging her to move out of the family house into her own apartment. So the lonely Eleanor is eager to find a place where she can belong and people she can call her friends.
The other researchers seem friendly at first – the kind Dr. Markway, the suave and lively psychic Theodora (Claire Bloom) and the mercenary Luke (Russ Tamblyn), who stands to inherit the house and is conducting a more practical investigation. But the group starts to pick up definite evidence of some bad energy in the house – ghostly noises, doors opening and shutting on their own, cryptic messages scrawled on walls – and are uneasy when a lot of it seems to be targeting Eleanor specifically. So Eleanor’s new friends soon start avoiding her; but Eleanor senses the house itself wants her somehow. Which is ridiculous of course…unless ghosts are actually real. And if they were….would that really be such a bad thing, having a place to belong to?
I may prefer this version to others, but it’s got some flaws. It takes entirely too long to meet Eleanor; she doesn’t turn up until about 20 minutes in, after we’ve seen an exhaustive review of the house’s cursed history and endured a lengthy scene of Dr. Markway convincing the house’s owners to let him conduct his study. Meanwhile, poor neglected Eleanor gets only a single three-minute scene with her sister and a handful of “inner-thoughts” voiceovers to tell her own story. I would much rather if it were the other way around; we’d learn more about Eleanor, and the house would have been more of a mystery.
And we would have gotten to see more of Julie Harris. Prior to this I’d only seen her once; I had the great privilege of seeing her live, alongside Charles Durning in a revival of the play The Gin Game. She played her role in Gin Game similar to Eleanor here; a little nervous, easily frightened when others are upset, and just barely holding herself together. But here in The Haunting, she also lets herself give way to the house trying to seduce her, and after seeing her upset by some earlier haunted hijinks, it somehow makes things all the more chilling.
It’s a bit unclear – by design – whether Eleanor really is succumbing to possession, or to to madness. Shirley Jackson played up the paranormal in her novel – but director Robert Wise played up the possibility of mental illness and suggestion. Both theories end up being equally plausible by the film’s end – leaving the whole thing still just as much of a mystery.